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Posts Tagged ‘The Fast and the Furious’

When Justin Lin’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift first came out in 2006, it did okay for itself, though it didn’t quite cross the double-its-budget box office threshold that apparently is the requirement for a film to be considered a genuine success. Most people dismissed it as a clutching-at-straws third instalment of series which had run out of ideas (not to mention original cast members). Not-quite-ten years on, of course, with the Fast and Furious franchise elevated to world-bestriding colossus status, it has acquired a certain curiosity value – is it the franchise misstep it initially looks like?

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Like I said, the main characters of the series are distinctly thin on the ground this time around, and protagonist duties are left to Texan bad lad and (inevitably) boy racer Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), who at the start of the film is expelled from high school. This is not, as you might have thought, because he is visibly about 25 and much too old to be at school – everyone at high school in Texas seems to be well on the way to their thirties, which is not a great advertisement for the state’s education system when you think about it.

No, Sean gets kicked out for racing, predictably enough, and is packed off to stay with his dad, who is living a slightly sleazy expat lifestyle in Tokyo (which often looks suspiciously like Los Angeles with bits added via special effects). Despite not speaking or reading a word of Japanese, he is nevertheless packed off to the local Japanese school. Here he makes friends with a comic relief sidekick (Bow Wow), who is not Japanese, and sort of starts a bit of a thing with a hot-looking girl (Nathalie Kelley), who is not Japanese either.

All this inevitably leads Sean to the local street racing circuit, where finally a (these days at least) familiar face appears – it’s Han from the Fast and Furious All-Stars (Sung Kang), who isn’t Japanese either. When Hot Girl’s boyfriend Takeshi (Brian Tee), who is actually Japanese, takes exception to Sean putting the moves on her, a race inevitably breaks out – but Sean’s skills at going very fast in a straight line are of limited value in Japan, where one apparently wins races by going very fast round corners in a manner I would describe as fairly unsafe. Having wrecked one of Han’s cars and lost this vehicular combat, Sean finds himself having to do odd jobs for Han. But will he win the heart of Hot Girl? Will the simmering rivalry between Sean and Takeshi ignite again? And will he ever manage to learn how to go around corners properly?

Now, enjoyable as I find the Fast and Furious movies, even I will cheerfully admit they are not exactly highbrow entertainment – but even by the standards of the series, Tokyo Drift is an unusually vacuous piece of work, as you may have noted from the the number of times ‘inevitably’ and ‘predictably’ crop up in the synopsis just above. To say the plot is contrived and more than a bit silly is an understatement, and while all of these films have a glossy sheen, this one has little else.

These days, Asia is such a major market that it’s quite common for films to incorporate Asian characters and even extra scenes just to appeal to crowds over there, but I doubt the decision to set this film in Tokyo was made with an eye on seizing the audience’s yen: if so, they would probably have included a single sympathetic named Japanese character. (There’s kind of a suggestion that Hot Girl may be half-Japanese, but the film virtually admits that she’s just there to be ornamental and doesn’t bother with giving her any depth.) But they don’t – every local whose name we learn is either a local thug or an actual member of the Yakuza. Being – well, calling it ‘heroic’ is pushing it in a movie where the height of moral and personal achievement consists of going round a corner at high speeds while not pointing the right way, but whatever – is left to the expats. Japan is just there because it looks nice and because it presents some interesting cliches to mess around with (Sean gets into a bit of a contretemps with a sumo wrestler at one point, who is very unflatteringly depicted).

I think it’s also probably an issue that most of these films are about various legally-dubious capers, with a little light car racing on the side, whereas in Tokyo Drift the situation is reversed – Han is up to some dodgy deals, but the focus is firmly on going round corners quickly at funny angles. The non-vehicular action quotient is lower here than in any of the other films in the series, which somehow makes the whole thing a bit more of a niche movie – you either have to be really into car racing, or alternatively absurdly misrepresented Japanese pop culture, to find this very engaging stuff. (Although I suppose cultural historians may find the way the film makes a big deal out of people having cameras on their phones interesting, as this clearly still had novelty value back in 2006.)

In short, it’s an eminently dismissible entry in the series, or would be if recent instalments hadn’t tried so heroically to retcon a little significance into it. If you’ve seen the later films in which he appears, Sung Kang’s performance here seems loaded with a kind of soulfulness and significance that probably just wasn’t there at the time the film came out: in any case, as the main link to the rest of the series, he does a sterling job. There is also the pleasure of imagining a surly-looking Jason Statham lurking just out of frame for much of the film, as we must now imagine is the case. It really does tie in with the other movies remarkably well: one has to wonder just how far in advance, and in how much detail, they plan ahead.

Having said that, I suspect they’re just very good at improvising and stitching bits together, because if in 2006 they were planning to make a series of very good films some years down the line, one has to wonder why they didn’t make a better one at the time. Tokyo Adrift would probably be a better subtitle for this one – most of the elements that make this series fun are present and correct here, but it’s even dumber than usual and you really do miss the regular characters. The film is kind of flopping about trying to find a reason to exist and not quite managing it – if the next four films hadn’t gone on to be such massive hits, I doubt anyone would spare it very much thought at all.

 

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Ah, the sounds of an overworked big end and someone rapping in Spanish – can there be any more potent auditory tip-off to the fact that we’re back in the peculiar world of the Fast and the Furious franchise? The thing about these big film series is that they can be very different beasts – some of them maintain a pretty standard profile throughout their history, the earliest films bearing a strong family resemblance to the most recent instalments, while others go through remarkable shifts in tone and style as they years go by. The Fast and the Furious definitely falls into the latter camp.

Bearing this in mind, Justin Lin’s 2009 film Fast and Furious (which is technically The Fast and the Furious 4) is one of the key movies in the sequence. The original movie had done rather better than expected at the box office, but the first two sequels were severely hobbled by the fact that mountainous star the great Vin Diesel had jumped ship to attempt to forge his own career as an action star. Luckily for lovers of all things rapid and bad-tempered, by the late 2000s said career was foundering a bit, leading to the big man making a moderately triumphant return to what’s now surely his signature role.

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And so Fast and Furious basically ignores the second and third films entirely and picks up where the first one left off, with baldy boy racer/criminal mastermind Dom Toretto (Diesel) doing his thing in central America (well, the existence of Tokyo Drift is sort of acknowledged, but the implication is that this film is set some time before it). Toretto’s wilful defiance of the laws of the land, not to mention the laws of physics, result in the police being very keen to have a word with him, and in an attempt to spare the rest of his gang (principally, for our purposes, the divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez), he cuts out on them.

Meanwhile, pretty-boy maverick FBI agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) is in pursuit of some drug dealers in Los Angeles – especially a mystery man named Braga. Having infiltrated Toretto’s gang five years earlier, but opted to release Dom into the wild rather than arrest him, relations between O’Conner and the Toretto clan are rather strained. What could possibly bring them back together?

Well, someone blowing up the divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez, of course. Somehow she gets herself tangled up in Braga’s operations and meets an entirely and definitely terminal sticky end (well, sort of). With O’Conner out to bring Braga to justice, and Toretto equally intent on exacting revenge, it’s inevitable that the two of them will eventually butt heads and resume their understated bromance…

My understanding is that what happens to the Fast and the Furious franchise in this film was the result of a considered decision on the part of suits at Universal, the studio responsible for the series. At this point in the late 2000s, Universal felt they were lacking a solid blockbuster franchise and decided to try and elevate the F&F series to this status. Prior to this, the series had always been, at best, mid-range action movies, so this was a bit of a gamble, but one which has obviously paid off magnificently.

So the prime objective of Fast and Furious 4 is to take the original characters and some how get them into a position facilitating the production of Fast and Furious 5,6, and 7 on a much bigger scale, and the thing about this film which is too easy to miss is just how easy writer Chris Morgan makes the plot- and character-management look. The start and end points for most of the characters were, I would imagine, pretty inflexible, but the job he does of getting from point A to point B, providing a reasonably satisfying story en route, is actually really impressive.

I’ve no idea how many films in advance this series is planned, but the first act of this one suggests either a startlingly long-term plan or deep inventiveness on the part of the screenwriter. What’s shown here on screen makes sense (at least as much as the rest of the movie, anyway), but – as astute viewers may have noted – these events have been revisited and revised on two separate occasions in subsequent films. And yet it all still hangs together, with no very obvious holes or gaps.

Of course, the shift in gears does result in a film which frequently doesn’t feel quite certain of what it wants to be: for every relatively low-key, character-based moment that feels grounded in reality, along comes a dumbass action sequence or ridiculous stunt. But not that ridiculous – or, perhaps, not quite ridiculous enough, compared to the monumental spectaculars laid on by later films. This movie is neither one thing nor the other, and it occasionally suffers for it.

I could go on to talk about the lamentably small amount of Michelle Rodriguez in this movie, or the forgettable nature of the villains, but even somewhat flawed F&F is still mightily entertaining stuff, with the requisite amounts of beautiful people and machinery doing alluring but transgressive things – one gets the sense these films aren’t really about the clash of good and evil, but perhaps beauty and ugliness, or possibly speed and slowness. Or perhaps there’s a subtext about something else entirely: Vin Diesel gets come on to like a rocket by Gal Gadot (making her series debut), but seems unmoved, preferring to grapple with his need for vengeance. Or Paul Walker. Or, come to that, an engine block.

In the end Fast and Furious is an atypically awkward and difficult to categorise instalment in this particular franchise – all the subsequent films have been effortlessly enjoyably, breezy popcorn fun, but you sense this one struggling to shake off its roots as a rather different kind of film entirely. In the end, though, the conversion from drama to pure blockbuster is a success, and clearly paved the way for the series which is such a fixture of blockbuster season now.

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When it comes to black ironies in the realm of life-transcending-art, the recent, tragic death of Paul Walker takes some beating – I think you’d have to have Christopher Lambert being decapitated in a duel or Sigourney Weaver being killed by an extra-terrestrial parasite to even come close. Walker owed his celebrity almost entirely to an association with fast cars and dangerous driving; nevertheless his death still comes as a shock, not least because it feels so darkly apposite.

By a weird and rather bleak coincidence, the original The Fast and the Furious arrived as part of my DVD rental package only the other day. The idea that I’d end up writing about it as some kind of tribute to Walker had never crossed my mind, obviously; I might even have found the idea laughable, not least because Walker’s contribution always struck me as by far the most dispensable element of the Fast and Furious formula.

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Having said that – obviously, if you were going to pick one of the Fast and Furious films as a showcase for Walker’s talents, you’d pick number two, mainly because he’s indisputably the leading man in that one. But surely no-one would honestly claim that it’s the best of the series, quite possibly for that very same reason. The first film, on the other hand, also gives Walker a very healthy chunk of the action, and has some stuff going for it which more recent, louder instalments are entirely lacking in.

Even the studio heads at Universal will happily admit that the Fast and Furious franchise has been pretty comprehensively retooled in the course of the last few films. Rather than a cheerfully, brazenly absurd exercise in globetrotting and industrial-scale carnage, The Fast and the Furious is a rather more down-to-earth attempt at an action drama. Anyone only familiar with later films may find it a slightly discombobulating experience – to say nothing of the fact that one of the major plot twists won’t be remotely surprising.

Anyway. Paul Walker plays Brian, a young man, greatly into street racing, who spends all his time hanging around the cafe-garage run by one Dominic Toretto (the great Vin Diesel, of course), a major figure in the LA racing scene. Everyone assumes this is because Brian has a thing about Toretto’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), or simply wants to impress the big man. All his dreams must be coming true, then, as – despite never quite managing to beat Toretto in a race – he manages to earn a spot in Toretto’s crack team of mechanics and drivers, and get it on with his sister as well. (Toretto himself is usually off getting it on with Letty, played by Michelle Rodriguez, at this point. Ah, those were the days.)

However, Brian has a secret, and this is where I spoil the movie, by the way. He is actually an undercover cop, attempting to discover who has been hijacking trucks in the LA area using precision driving techniques and souped-up cars. Toretto and his crew are the prime suspects, hence the attempt to infiltrate the group. But as his investigation proceeds – or, rather, stalls – Brian finds himself questioning his own loyalty, increasingly finding himself coming to respect Toretto as a man, and feeling something rather deeper for his sister. Will he be able to bring them in if it turns out they are guilty?

Well, given they have made five sequels to date, with filming on another in progress (and several more after that planned, prior to Walker’s death at least), I’ll leave you to work out which way Brian eventually jumps. Grit and realism are relative things when it comes to this kind of movie, and while The Fast and the Furious still looks like a garish pop-video in places, with some slightly cartoony racing sequences, it has a hard, slightly sleazy edge, and is notably short on the laws-of-physics-punishing stunts and supernaturally long runways which were so prominent in its most recent progeny.

The biggest difference is that this isn’t ultimately some sort of absurd caper movie, but an attempt at an action drama based on the personalities of the characters involved. All right, so everyone drives flashy cars and dresses stylishly, but the meat of the story is still about Brian’s growing friendship with Toretto, his romance with Mia, and his reluctance to believe that they could be the people he’s been ordered to bring down. The street racing and long, loving shots of carburettors being disassembled are basically just trappings for one guy having a bit of an existential crisis. I had a bit of a go at Fast and Furious 6 for its fixation on family as a theme – but it was there in the first one, too, and rather more effectively realised.

Perhaps this is why the intrusion into the film of exactly the kind of stunts and action sequences one would expect feels like the main problem with it. There’s certainly something strange going on in a movie when the prime suspect for a crime turns out to be guilty and it feels like a weird plot twist. It’s disconcerting when Toretto and his team are revealed to be the hijackers after all – they’re so obviously capable of it that the revelation that they’re guilty is completely wrong-footing, every rule of genre plotting insists that it should turn out to be someone else. But no. It’s them, and as a result Brian looks a bit of a tool for protesting their innocence to his bosses.

When the stunts and chases began in earnest I got a real sense of the film starting to unravel – the action is competently done, but very generic, and as one chase succeeds another in quick succession with only the most peremptory plotting involved, the film’s previous emphasis on characterisation and atmosphere feels like it’s being squandered. Still, this was where the future for these films lay, for all that it’s the climax of this original one that’s the least involving part.

Vin Diesel is still top-billed, and you can kind of see why: he is the fulcrum of the plot and exerts his usual massive presence and charisma (playing D&D will grant that to a person). But Paul Walker gets more screen-time, and he’s the audience identification character – let’s face it, he’s the hero! This kind of film does not make the greatest demands of its performers, of course, but it still requires a sort of minimum level of competency from them. Walker comfortably exceeds that level – as does Diesel, of course – and if it’s fairly clear from this outing that he was never quite going to be top banana in this series, he certainly isn’t a disgrace to it, either.

No-one seems to be quite sure what’s going to happen to the Fast and Furious series following Walker’s death – there hasn’t been any word yet as to whether enough of the seventh film had been shot to make it viable as originally scripted – but I could easily understand the reluctance of the other members of the ensemble to continue blithely turning them out in Walker’s absence. These are the films Paul Walker will be remembered for, anyway: and there are much worse monuments to leave behind. They are genre movies with bags of energy and a touch of class – and this first one has an unexpected depth to it, as well.

[Even as I was writing this the Hollywood Reporter broke a story claiming Fast and Furious 7 may be delayed but won’t be scrapped. This is a movie I’m looking forward to, for reasons which regular readers will be well aware of, but it’s hard to see how not just the fact of Walker’s death but its nature will have a negative impact on what should have been purely a piece of popcorn fun.]

 

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